Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Michael Blanco Spirit Forward

Michael Blanco
Spirit Forward
Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records

"Spirit Forward" the title of bassist-composer Michael Blanco's new album, is a bartending term for a type of cocktail made with strong spirits (like the Manhattan or Martini) that seeks to highlight and enhance the flavor of the base spirit, not to mask its flavor. Blanco states, "When choosing Spirit Forward for the album title, I had this definition in mind and how it relates to my music. It's a good metaphor for how strong musical personalities can come together and create a dynamic unit, while still maintaining their individuality." This refers to the Michael Blanco Quartet featuring John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Kevin Hays (piano) and Clarence Penn (drums). He also observed "I like the idea that the act of releasing an album of original music is akin to putting your 'spirit forward' out into the world, as well as the way the word spirit can be used to mean motion (like 'spirit away'), so Spirit Forward also means forward motion and continuing progress."

Saxophonist Ellis has been a long-time friend and musical collaborator with Blanco, whereas the pianist Hays and drummer Penn (who I am most familiar with) are more recent additions to his group. And the band did a number of dates in 2015 working out on these compositions before actually going into the stdio resulting in this imaginative and intriguing recording. This is suggested by the first composition, "The Mystic Chord" which Blanco observes "The Mystic Chord is a six-note chord used by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and believed by Scriabin to have mystical properties. While practicing at home one day, I discovered that I could create a bass line with an interesting 6/4 groove by spelling out this chord one note at a time." The resulting melody has a "funky, lopsided quality," and the quartet explores the possibilities of this chord with Ellis' tenor providing a fluid, light sound.

"Notes From the Underground" was inspired by the Cornelia Street Cafe, and employs a low-register piano/bass counter-melody hat offsets Ellis' tenor at several points as well as impresses with his own solo. Blanco notes that so many of his favorite jazz clubs are basement rooms, hence the double entendre of the title. "Song Without Words" is a pretty number where the quartet displays its lyricism with Hays displaying his nice touch here, while the swinging title track evokes some classic 70s hard bop compositions with Hayes, Ellis and the leader stretching out. Then there is a quirky blues "Last Stable Orbit," (title is astronomical term that denotes" last orbit possible before an object (planet, spaceship, etc) gets sucked into a black hole.") with Ellis on soprano sax with a bit of squeal in his tone. A Neal LaBute play is the source of the tile for "Reasons To Be Pretty," a slow number opening with Ellis, again on soprano sax setting the mood before Hays takes a beautiful solo. Penn's cymbals play, whether with brushes or sticks, merits mention here, but is expectedly superb throughout.

Blanco's prior two albums have both garnered considerable praise. Listening to "Spirit Forward," one can understand why. There is so much to enjoy on this sparkling recording. Here is Michael Blanco and John Ellis with a different rhythm section.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the November-December 2016 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 369). 

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